Coping with Stress and Subtypes of Burnout Linked To Specific Detrimental Coping Strategies

Coping with Stress Burnout Coping Strategies
Coping with stress, burnout and coping strategies

A study published in the journal PLOS ONE by Jesus Montero-Marin and colleagues from the University of Zaragoza, Spain, suggests that coping with stress and different subtypes of burnout are each related to specific detrimental coping strategies.

Burnout Syndrome – Definition

Burnout occurs when professionals use ineffective coping strategies to try to protect themselves from work-related stress. Burnout syndrome is an important work-related disorder of psychosocial origin, caused when stressful working conditions are endured.

According to the classical definition, this syndrome includes the dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism and professional inefficacy. The “burnout syndrome” has also been defined as a combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment caused by chronic occupational stress.

The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions. Doctors and nurses, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others, would often end up being “burned out” – exhausted, listless, and unable to cope. Nowadays, the term is not only used for these helping professions, or for the dark side of self-sacrifice.

Signs and symptoms of burnout


People affected feel drained and emotionally exhausted, unable to cope, tired and down, and don’t have enough energy. Physical symptoms include things like pain and gastrointestinal problems.

Alienation from (work-related) activities

People who have burnout find their jobs increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may start being cynical about their working conditions and their colleagues. At the same time, they may increasingly distance themselves emotionally, and start feeling numb about their work.

Reduced performance

Burnout mainly affects everyday tasks at work, at home or when caring for family members. People with burnout are very negative about their tasks, find it hard to concentrate, are listless and lack creativity.

The “burnout syndrome” includes the dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism and professional inefficacy that come with work-related stress. The interactions between burnout subtypes and coping strategies are poorly understood.

Burnout Types

‘Overload’ Burnout

Overload burnout occurs when people work harder and more frantically to achieve success, often to the point of exhaustion, and to the detriment of health and personal life. This is the type of burnout that most people are familiar with, and it’s also the most common. It presents involvement, ambition and overload.

Under-challenged’ Burnout

Surprisingly, burnout can result from doing too little. Under-challenged burnout could be considered the opposite of the overload subtype. People with under-challenged burnout may feel underappreciated and become frustrated because their role lacks learning opportunities, room for growth, or meaningful connection with co-workers and leadership. The ‘under-challenged’ type has to cope with monotonous and unstimulating conditions that fail to provide satisfaction and feels indifference, boredom and lack of personal development.

‘Neglect’ burnout

The 3rd type of burnout is the worn-out subtype. This is also called neglect burnout, because it can result from feeling helpless in the face of challenges. Neglect burnout occurs when you aren’t given enough structure, direction, or guidance in the workplace.

As mentioned above, so far, possible relationships between burnout types and coping strategies have not been explored.

The PLOS One study

Thus, the aim of the PLOS One study was to estimate the explanatory power of the different styles of coping with stress on the development of different burnout subtypes, evaluating the contribution of specific coping strategies.

Briefly, this work demonstrates that overload was explained by the focus on the solving of situations, although it was also explained by religion and mainly by venting of emotions; lack of development was explained mainly by cognitive avoidance, although it was also explained by venting of emotions and behavioural disengagement; and neglect was only explained by behavioural disengagement, which is consistent with the general proposals of a previous study.

The PLOS One study identifies that “overload” burnout — refers to those employees who work toward success until exhaustion — is mainly related to emotional venting. These individuals try to cope with their stress by complaining about the organizational hierarchy at work and may also adopt a negative tone. Venting about their workload is their stress release mechanism.

The “lack of personal development” burnout is mostly linked to an avoidance coping strategy. These workers tend to manage stress by distancing themselves from work, and from what they consider an unrewarding experience; a strategy that may lead to a depersonalization or cynicism.

The “worn-outor “neglect” burnout subtype — are employees who struggle with stress but ultimately choose to neglect their work because of pressures. This burnout subtype is associated with a coping strategy based on the lack of motivation and giving up in the face of stress.

In conclusion, the authors discuss that their work supports the hypothesis that different coping styles are associated with the diverse burnout subtypes. Importantly, this could be the keystone for developing new treatment interventions adjusted to the coping strategies of each particular case.

Source: PLoS One, 2014; 9(2):e89090. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089090. eCollection 2014.
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